* Soviet spies in America -- Rudolf Ivanovich Abel

Cold War Spies: Rudolf Abel (1903-71)

Figure 1.--.

Rudolf Abel was the Soviet master spy in America during the Cold War. He operated under his actual name, William Fischer. He entered the United States in 1948 and set up an effective ring of agents. His primary assignment was nuclear weapons. He worked with both the Cohens and the Rosenbergs. His agents had infiltrated Los Alamos where the Manhattan Project had developed the atomic bombs. Most analysts believe that the information gathered by Abel had a major impact on the Soviet nuclear program. He also set up sabotage operations in the United States and Latin America. The FBI did not arrest him until June 1957, primarily using information provided by Reino Hayhanen, a Soviet defector. Abel was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was released in 1962, in exchange for the the American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, which the Soviets had shot down.


William Fischer's (Rudolf Abel's) parents were German. His father was Genrich Matveyevich Fischer (1871-1935). He was born in Russia and was a revolutionary associate of Lenin. He was arrested in Russia and sentenced to 3 years of exile (1889). He emmigrated to Britain where he lived for 20 years organizing factory workers. He was secretary of the communist cell in Newcastle, an important English industrial city. He was involved before World War I in smuggling arms to revolutionary groups in Russia. Lubov Vasilyevna was a midwife.


William had an older brother, Genrich, who was born in Russia before the family came to England. William was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England during 1903. His father had just brought the family to England 2 years earlier.


William was an excellent student. At age 16 he passed the university entrace examination (1919). He also became a British subject. The Russian Revolution changed young William's until then conventional life. After studying for 2 years, however, his father took the family back to Russia which now was the Communist Soviet Union (1921).

Return to the Soviet Union (1921)

Many idealistic Communists went to the Soviet Union. Most were shocked with what they found. They expected to find a Socialist utopia. Fischer had a relationship with Lenin to help establish himself when he first arrived. Lenin died a few after the family returned (1924). Fischer without Lenin lost his sponsor. As a result he moved from Moscow to the Vologda region away from the political intreagues in Moscow. William's brother Genrich drowned after the family had return to the Soviet Union.

Military Service (1925)

William was drafted into the Red Army (1925). That was quite a transition in onkly a few years, from an English university to the Red Army. He served in the Radio Battalion.


Fischer married Elena Stepanovna Lebedeva. She was a cellist in the children's theatre orchestra. They had a daughter, Evelyn (1929).

OGPU (1927)

Elena 's sister suggested he try to work with the ll-Union State Political Administration(OGPU). This was the Soviet security apratus or secret police. Fischer was hired (1927). He eventually was assigned to the Foreign Department.

Norway (1931-34)

The OGPU assigned Fischer to Norway (1931). He lived their with his wife and little girl. His code name was "Frank". He was still an English subject and thus obtained an English passport at this time. This made it easier to travel in Europe. His primary mission was to help set up clandestine radio stations. He often pretended to be an artist as a cover. At this time he was still openly using his real name.

Britain (1935-36)

The NKVD (which replaced the OGPU in 1934) next assuigned him to England. Here he seems to have worked as a radioman and encoder. He seems to have been involved in transmitting information obtained by the Philby group. While in England he appears to have helped convince convinced emigree physicist Pyotr Kapitsa to return to the Soviet Union for a visit. The Soviets immediately seized his passport and did not allow him to leave. They built an entire institute for his work. He was awarded a Nobel Prize (1978).

The Ukraine (1938)

The NKVD assigned Fishcher to Chernovtsy in the Ukraine (1938). This was near the border with Bukovina (a Romanian province the Soviets would cease in 1940) and Polish Galicia which the NAZIs woukd cease in 1939). During this period he helped recruit and organize Polish, German, Romanian, and Ukrainian agents.

Dismisal (1938-41)

Despite his successful assignments, the NKVD dismissed him (December 31, 1938). There were two problems. First his brother in law was declared an enemy of the people. I don't know the details here, but millions were caught up in Stalin's Terror, mostly people who had commited no real crime, Second, Fischer's boss while he was in Britain, Alexander Orlov, defected. Fischer was lucky that he was only dimissed. Many in Russia were arrested and shot or sentenced to the Gulag with even less on their record. Fischer got a job as a patent technician and subsequently as an engineer in a aerospace plant.

World War II (1941-45)

The NAZIs launched Operation Barbarossa (June 1941). As was the case for many Soviet citizens, the NAZI invasion fundamentally affected their lives. Stalin mobilized the Soviet Union to fight the NAZIs. The NKVD recalled Fischer (September 1941). He was assihned as chief of the radio communication section "Otdelnaya Brigada NKVD". He worked under Pavel Sudoplatov in his 4th "Special Tasks" Directorate. [Sudoplatov] Sudoplatov assigned him to oversee the "deception games" radio control (mid-1942). Most notably he was involved with operation "Monastery".

Rudolf Abel

There actually was a Rudolf Abel. Fischer whike in Moscow during World War II lived with two friends, Rudolf Abel and Kirill Khenkin. Abel was born in Riga, Latvia (1900). The NKVD gave him assignments in ,China and various European countries. The NKVD executed his brother (1938). Abel himself died (1955). Khenkin is notable for becoming a discedent.

Committee of Information (1946)

Fischer after World War II was transferred to the NKVD "Committee of Information" (1946). His boss was Alexander Korotkov who reported to Sudoplatov. Sudoplatov at this time headed Special Service for Intelligence and Sabotage in MGB, this was also known as the Bureau MGB N1 for Foreign Sabotage. With the outbreak of Cold War , the United States became the primary target. Fischer raised in Britain spoke fluent English and thus was chosen for a key role in the enterprise.

American Assignment (1948)

Fischer began a special training program for an assigment in America. He left for the United States with the code name Arach" (October 12, 1948). He entered the United States by traveling through Cnada (November 16). He used the name Andrew Kayotis, an actual American citizen that had died in Russia). Fischer's assignment was to reorganize the Soviet covert intelligence system in the United States and to establish a radio communications system with the Soviet Union. Another assignment was to set up a sabotage network.


Abel set up noth a West Coast and East Coast network.

West coast

The west coast network Abel set up included agents in California, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Many Latin American agents were expert in sabotage operations having gained experience in World War II guerilla operations against the NAZIs. There was some notable individuals involved. Maria de la Sierra ("Patricia") was Trotsky's former secretary ("Africa"). Michael and Anna Filonenko were Fischer's agents in Brazil. Michael Filonenko arrived in South America as an immigrant via China (1951). His specialty was mathematics and blowing up bridges and railroads). After arriving in Brazil, Filonenko founded an actualbusiness. He associated with Brazilian government officials. He even met Paraguayan dictator Stressner. When Abel was arrested, communications with Moscow became more difficult. The Soviets initiated a massive distant-water fishing operation. A fishing" vessel in the Antarctic was used for communications. This operation may still be active in Latin America. Abel's early targets were around Long Beach (a port south of Los Angeles) with military facilities. Abel's agents found Communist sympthizers in the Chinese community who put explosives on American ships transporting supplies to Asia.

East coast

Abel's East Coast network included Kurt Wissel who had atual sabotage experience. He worked as an senior engineer for a Norfolk shipbuilder. Wissel's network included several individuals from the German community who worked as longshoremen and service operations.

Korean War (1950)

Stalin encouraged Korean dictator Kim Il Sung to invade South Korea (June 1950). The result was the Korean War (1950-53). President Truman ordered the U.S. military to support South Korea abd the United Nations Security Council because the Soviets were boycotting it codemned the North Korean invasion. Abel ordered his Latin American agents with explosive expertise called special combat troops to the United States. They assembled there for 2 months for possible assignments (Fall 1950). They were to enter the United states via Mexico posing as seasonal farm workers. Abel set up a network of safe apartments for these agents.

Nuclear Espionage

The Soviet Union penetrated the Manhattan Project during World War II and this played an important role in their atomic bomb program. Of coirse this was only the beginning of the nuclear arms race. Abel was assigned to obtain information on American nuclear weapons research and assumed control over what was left of the World War II network. The motivation of the scientists who fed information to the Soviets varied. Most were sympathetic because the Soviets (at least after June 1941) were fighting the NAZIs. Abel had trouble restablishing contacts with the scientists (1948-49). One of the most effective spy was Theodore Alvin Hall "Perseus"/"Mlad"). Hall who was quite young had assisted the Soviets because he did not want America to have a monopoly on nuclear weapons. Abel met personally with Hall who agreed to cooperate (1949). Fischer took up residence in a small Brooklyn apartment under the name Emil R. Goldfus as a photographer and artist. He had set up radio transmitters atvseveral locations on the East Coast between New York and Norfolk, near the Great Lakes, and on the West Coast. Abel ran Lona and Morris Cohens ("Volunteer" and "Lesly") and became friends with them. The Cohens were diligent Stalinists and help recruit several agents for Abel. They then operated as couriers between the cooperating atomic scientists and their Soviet controllers. The FBI arrested the Rosenbergs (1950). Fearing they would be next, the Cohens fled America for Paris. They were ultimately picked up in Britain while on another NKVD assignment under the names Peter and Helen Kroger. They were found guilty of espionage and sebntenced to 20 years. Eventually they were exchanged. Hall after the Soviets tested their first bomb deciced to stop spying. Because the Soviets now had the bomb he told Abel that he had done enough to establish a nuclear balance (1952).

Hollow Nickel Case (1953)

A Brooklyn paper boy got hold of a hollow nickle (June 22, 1953). A boy named Jimmy was collecting for the Brooklyn Eagle. A lady didn't have change, so she got change from ladies across the hall. The nickle sounded funny to Jimmy, who dropped it and it poped open revealing a hidden message, A friend's father was a police officer who alerted the FBI. Jimmy's discovery launched a 4-year FBI investigation. The FBI was unable to locate the owner, but they felt the person was of foreign origins and strongly suspected spying was involved. Details only came when a Soviet spy, Reino Häyhänen, contacted the FBI to defect. [FBI]

Capture (1957)

As the hollow nickel case was evolving, the NKVD recalledf Fischer to Moscow for a few months (1955). The primary purpose was 'reliability checking'. Hall asked authorities to recall his assistant Reino Häyhänen. The NKVD had initially recruited Häyhänen at the Time of the Winter War (1940-41) because he spoke Finnish. Häyhänen was inherited by Abel from the previous Soviet spy master. A different assiatant had been assigned to Abel, Robert--Gyavgyanen Andrei Stepanovich (1920-54). He was killed, however, when his ship sank in the Baltic. Abel returned to New York when the NKVD learned of Hayhanen's defection. Moscow Center had recalled Häyhänen as Abel had suggested, but he did not want to go back to the Soviet Union. Moscow Center ordered Abel to flee. He headed for Florida where he hid for 2 months. Soviet agents watched Abel's apartment and they did not detect FBI surveillance. As a result, Abel thought it would be safe to return. The FBI arrested Abel at his Manhattan hotel.

Exchange (1962)

The Soviets shot down CIA pilot Frances Gary Powers who was over-flying the Soviet Union in a U-2 to obtain information on Soviet missles (1960). The incident ruined the Geneva conference between Khruchev and Eisenhower. Powers survived the shootdown and was tried and sentenced to prison in a highly publicized trial. Abel was exchanged for Powers at a Berlin check pont (February 1962).

Last Years

Fischer returned to a public welcome as a Hero of the Soviet Union. His last years were lived in a confortable Moscow apartment. Fischer, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in Mioscow with his daugter at his side (1971). She said he told her, "Don't forget that we are Germans anyway ...."


FBI. "Famous Cases: Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case)".

Sudoplatov, Pavel. Special Tasks. Sudoplatov was a close associate of feared NKVD Lavrentii Beria. He was a ranking NKVD officer involved in some of the most notavle NKVD secret oprtations during the World War II and early Cold War era. One of these was the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexio (1940). He also oversaw the Soviet penetration of the American Manhattan (atmoic bomb) program. Because of his association with Beria, after Stalin;s death andd Beria's execution, he was sentenced to a 15 year term. After serving the term, he wrote his autobiograpy--Special Tasks. A great deal of our understanding about NKVD operations and Stalinist politics comes from his autobiography.

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Created: 5:46 PM 1/19/2007
Last updated: 11:52 PM 5/12/2020